Met’s “Les Troyens” offers stirring grandeur amid uneven cast and staging

December 14, 2012
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Susan Graham as Dido and Marcello Giordani as Aeneas in the Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

Some 1,400 years apart, two great souls, Augustine of Hippo and Hector Berlioz, wept upon reading Virgil’s epic The Aeneid and recalled the experience as a turning point in their lives. For Augustine, his tears over a pagan fable were a sign of frivolity, an error to purge following his conversion to Christianity. Berlioz, instead, developed an abiding passion for Virgil. It moved him to make a pilgrimage to Italy to visit sites from the poem and, most vital for posterity, to write the words and music for Les Troyens, his glorious five-act opera after Books II and IV of The Aeneid, revived in uneven style at the Metropolitan Opera Thursday night.

From Ovid to Dante to our own time, every era has had its own Virgil. Like many readers today, Berlioz saw The Aeneid less as a celebration of empire than as a lament for history’s victims: the vanquished, refugee Trojans and those whom they destroy on their way to founding Rome. By some mystery of across-the-ages kinship, he crafted a musical idiom that echoes the stately, liquid beauty of Virgil’s verse, weaving grandeur and pathos into a grandiose score that is by turns bristling and rapt, gossamer-fine and flamboyant.

Even in mad-for-grand-opéra Paris, Les Troyens was famously never staged in full during Berlioz’s lifetime, and at the Met it has come around once a decade since its 1973 company premiere. This season’s revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2003 production is patchy in both musical and theatrical terms.

Part I, “The Capture of Troy,” found three principal singers in poor form. Gleaming top notes are Deborah Voigt’s vocal strength, but the prophetess Cassandre’s music lies relatively low, and Voigt’s tone on Thursday was wan, watery, and hard to hear even in lightly orchestrated portions of the role. She has no affinity for the French language or style and on the whole failed to convey her character’s deranged majesty, though she caught fire briefly in Act II’s closing moments when Cassandre, defiant and exalted, leads the Trojan women in mass suicide before the arriving Greek marauders.

A Met official announced before the curtain rose that Dwayne Croft, due to portray Chorèbe, was suffering from a cold. Despite an understandable lack of vocal bloom, he sang, as always, with musicianly intelligence and made a dashing, ardent suitor to the unhappy Cassandre.

As for Marcello Giordani as Enée, he either had an off night or perhaps tackled this monumental part too late in his career. In the past, he has excelled in French roles, including Don José and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, but on Thursday he struggled to support low phrases, sounded raw and unsteady elsewhere, and came close to his best form in only a few phrases of the love duet and Inutiles regrets. Worst of all, this usually commanding stage animal radiated nothing so much as a kind of deer-in-the-headlights unease. The scattered boos that greeted Giordani at the curtain call were unseemly, but Thursday’s Enée surely marked a low point in his honorable twenty-year association with the Met.

Matters vocal picked up markedly in Part II of the opera, “The Trojans at Carthage.” The secondary roles in both halves of Berlioz’s cast-of-dozens extravaganza were all splendidly played and sung. Karen Cargill lavished suavity and voluptuous tone upon Anna’s music; Kwangchul Youn exuded authority as Narbal and Mercury; Richard Bernstein as Panthus sang and acted with his customary verve; Paul Corona and James Courtney made mirth as the Trojan sailors, “rude mechanicals” à la Shakespeare; and Paul Appleby’s mellow voice and beautiful soul made Hylas’s nostalgic Vallon sonore a highlight of the nothing-but-highlights five hours of Les Troyens.

As the poet Iopas, Eric Cutler gave a breathtaking performance of O blonde Cérès. He enunciated clearly, made stylish use of head voice, and phrased and varied tonal color and dynamics with the finesse of, well, a poet. And as he sang, Berlioz’s score by some miracle of alchemy transformed the wood, metal, and strings in the pit into a sublime, zephyr-kissed landscape. It was the kind of musical bliss that you wanted to go on forever.

Alone among the leading artists, Susan Graham as Didon consistently rose to the dramatic and musical heights of Berlioz’s masterpiece. While no longer quite the limpid, amber-like wonder it once was, her voice remains clear and even throughout its range, and she is a celebrated specialist in French music with a solid command of la belle langue. Graham traced the rapturous filigree in O nuit d’ivresse with surpassing grace, then reprised the duet’s main melody in a tear-drenched pianissimo in the opera’s closing moments; she wandered dazed and wounded among the bellowing Trojans preparing to sail for Italy; and in song and manner she captured both the dignity and the vulnerability of the Carthaginian queen. Succeeding the late, irreplaceable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didon in this production, Graham faced a formidable challenge, one she rose to with great-hearted generosity.

Zambello’s production seems to have been wrought by two different teams of wildly divergent ability. In “The Capture of Troy,} she moves masses of choristers, dancers, and extras around as tellingly and effectively as this writer has ever witnessed. Keen to the overarching truth of both Virgil and Berlioz—that history’s “progress” comes at the cost of ashes and blood—she opens and closes the opera with heaps of corpses. (In the first scene, they are actually exhausted Trojans who eventually stir.) The unit set by Maria Bjørnson features two circular openings: one suggesting the eye of the gods, who see but do nothing to lessen human suffering; and the other recalling the oculus and coffered dome of the Roman Pantheon, a triumphalist monument to gods and an empire now reduced to dust.

“The Trojans at Carthage,” by contrast, seems to unfold at a New-Age spa swarming with people clad in the monochrome, unisex attire of television science fiction. Anita Yavich’s otherwise handsome costumes have the virtue of sparing audiences the sight of opera singers in togas, and James F. Ingalls’ lighting turns the backdrop of wheat in Didon’s fertile realm golden, ruddy, moonbeam-blue, and other gorgeous shades. The Met’s corps de ballet performs Doug Varone’s extensive choreography superbly.

Like Graham, Maestro Fabio Luisi was up against the memory of a giant: James Levine, who has presided over nearly all of the Met performances of Les Troyens. In the event, Luisi led a vibrant, quicksilver reading of Berlioz’s miraculous score. The winds shrieked and the low strings sawed as Cassandre foresaw Chorèbe’s death; eerie, stinging brass sounded during the apparition of Hector’s ghost; and silvery violin arabesques glistened during the dances at Didon’s court and the great septet. Donald Palumbo’s Met choristers were, as we have come to expect, rockstars, this time in a massively long and ever-shifting assignment.

While some of the singing and stagecraft disappoints, Les Troyens carries the day on the strength of Berlioz’s inspired music. Don’t wait a decade to see and hear it again.

Les Troyens is in repertory through January 5, when it will be broadcast as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series, with encore showings January 26 (U.S.) and February 23 and 25 (Canada).; 212.362.6000.

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